Thursday 23 February 2017

'I can't take moral victories any more'- Liam Kearns has primed Tipp's footballers to be serious challengers

Tipperary's footballers have no intention of just making up the numbers in today's Munster final

Dermot Crowe

Liam Kearns and his team have overcome a number of obstacles this year to reach the provincial decider. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Liam Kearns and his team have overcome a number of obstacles this year to reach the provincial decider. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"I can't take moral victories any more"

These, the words of Liam Kearns, were delivered almost six years ago after Aherlow lost to Dr Crokes in the Munster club semi-final.

On the brink of a famous victory, his team conceded the levelling point 20 seconds after the three minutes of injury-time allocated had expired. In extra-time they unravelled and with that Kearns's involvement ceased. He explained that he needed a break from football. He needed a break from losing matches he knew should have been won.

Moral victories: he has known them only too well. They are worthless and patronising but when you spend most of your time, as he has, with the underprivileged, then they tend to follow you around.

The biggest came when Limerick manager in 2004, within a few inches of beating Kerry in the Munster final in the Gaelic Grounds, Darragh ó Sé fielding a ball that looked destined to win Limerick's first provincial title in 108 years. In the replay in Killarney, Kerry won by four points.

The year before that Kearns' Limerick went down by five points to Kerry in the Munster final in Killarney and in 2005 they lost by six in the semi-final, the year he and Limerick parted ways. His career has been mostly a portfolio of bids to bring long shots boldly up the ranks, to make them believe they can win something meaningful. And now there is a sense of history repeating itself as he leads Tipperary into a Munster final, striving to beat Kerry in the championship for the first time since 1928.

Their win over Cork, given the severe player drain they had to incur through injury, travel, and the traditional if understandable lure of hurling, might be considered a major return for one year. But great as it was, their first championship win over Cork in 72 years, there is still the seemingly immovable and eternal object of Kerry in his way. He is realistic enough to know the odds stacked against them. But imagine not having the moral victory for once. Imagine fantasy becoming reality.

Time heals and the anguish he felt in the past has been replaced by a renewed energy to usurp the establishment which, as the son of an All-Ireland minor medal winner, and a former county title winner with Austin Stacks himself, he was born into but doesn't seem to belong. Apart from a few years with Rathmore in 2012 and '13, he has cut his cloth outside the county. When Peter Creedon stepped down there were 15 applications for the vacant post of Tipperary manager. Kearns' presentation deeply impressed the interview panel and his time with Aherlow gave him a knowledge of the county, reaching the county final in 2009 and winning the club's second ever county senior championship the next year.

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When managing Limerick he encountered some of the dual player difficulties that are facing him now in Tipp. Twelve years ago he said that he would resign if the dual players decided, or were persuaded, to drop football. Now it's different. He has to make do and work within the limitations. People expected Seamus Kennedy to hurl but were hoping to hold on to Steven O'Brien. They knew Colin O'Riordan was committed to playing in Australia. Bill Maher came back in April, after being involved with the hurling squad, and the issue is deeply sensitive and potentially divisive. It needs to be delicately handled.

Last week Kearns' fellow selector, and the manager of the under 21 team which reached last year's All-Ireland final, cut loose. Tommy Toomey effectively blamed hurling interests for putting pressure on players to choose but if there is a way forward that's workable and fair then they will have to find a spirit of candour and co-operation.

"They (players) have to follow their dream and we wish them well," says Joe Hannigan, the football board chairman whose son George will be playing this afternoon. "We would love to have them back at any time."

Hannigan is a pacifist at heart. He speaks of training in Thurles on Wednesday night where the footballers and hurlers mixed freely, and Steve O'Brien wished his former colleagues well. "Look, you would like to have them but that's life. And sometimes it gives other fellas opportunities."

At the Cork match, Hannigan sat beside the Tipperary hurling manager Michael Ryan. He recalls Ryan's animation and visible concern as Cork ate into the Tipp lead and Ryan, like many others, played for both codes, having togged in his day for the county footballers. The hope is that they can find a harmonious path which will be for the good of Tipperary, hurling and football.

A motion at last year's convention calling for players to be committed to one, discarding the option of playing both, was heavily defeated. But there are challenges and this year the minor footballers were without two players who were part of last year's run to the All-Ireland minor football final, as they concentrated exclusively on hurling.

Hannigan accentuates the positives. Football is flying, irrespective of the difficulties, with appearances in minor and under 21 All-Ireland finals last year. The 2011 All-Ireland minor win was a massive achievement, beating a star-studded Dublin team, and last year's win over Dublin in the All-Ireland under 21 semi-final also ranks high in their list of recent accomplishments.

County board treasurer Michael Power, whose son David was minor manager when they won the All-Ireland in 2011, appreciates today is an enormous challenge. "I would be hoping we would give a great account of ourselves and that we would consolidate our win against Cork. And to make a statement that we are going to be serious challengers in the future.

"In 2002 we drew the Munster final (against Cork) in Thurles; we had a lot of close calls but never got over the line. So it was a marvellous achievement to beat Cork this year. Over the last 10 years we had been dominating Cork at underage, particularly at minor, so it is not a major surprise on the other hand. Eventually that comes through. Like, historically, through the 1930s Tipp were probably the number two team in Munster; we had more All-Irelands won than Cork at that time. We had four, we still have four; OK, Cork have seven now. I was talking to Nicholas Murphy at (former Cork chairman) Jim Forbes' funeral during the week and was saying that you have nearly 40 (37) provincial titles and seven All-Irelands, we have nine Munster and four All-Ireland titles."

But that was a long time ago and Kerry don't leave such scope for optimism. They have 77 Munster titles, and 37 All-Irelands, their most recent only two years ago. For all of Tipperary's progress, they played in Division 3 during the spring and will still be playing there next year. Kerry's last loss to a team in Munster besides Cork was to Clare in the 1992 Munster final, an ageing team in transition and Jack O'Shea's final appearance. While there have been close calls, times when they ran a fine line, they've never succumbed. To lose to Tipp today would be a catastrophe from their perspective.

Last year's landmark Munster final win for Clonmel Commercials is another positive affirmation of Tipperary's rising status in football. It ended with one of those narrow defeats, to Ballyboden in the All-Ireland semi-final, which leave Liam Kearns cold. But it gave an indication of the growing strength of club football in the county and up to a half dozen contenders would feel this year they can turn Clonmel over.

A challenge facing those tasked with furthering the interests of football in Tipperary is to create a more stable club structure in areas where the hurling is exceptionally strong, like the north of the county. Three of today's team haven't a football club to play for currently, but at underage level there are positive signals. The sister club of éire óg, Roscrea, Inane Rovers, won this year's under 14 'A' football championship and have qualified for the under 16 final­- significant feats in a hurling heartland.

Michael Power says the county board has been fully behind football's progression and they want for nothing financially. As for the dual player issue, he hopes "protocols can be put in place where at underage guys can play both games, for common sense to prevail. If we can't accommodate lads in the codes we have control of surely there is something wrong."

The loss of four players to the US after the league campaign was a heftier blow in many respects to Kearns than those who opted for hurling. This is not uncommon in many counties but it tends to be more prolific in counties where expectations of success are lower. In Tipp their departure could have been read as a vote of no confidence in the team's prospects but theirs is a different generation to those of the past and travelling in summer is a big draw for young men. The Footballer of the Year, Jack McCaffrey, is an example of that, underlining it all the more given that he runs the very real risk of missing out on another All-Ireland medal.

"We have fellas on the county football team who could be on the Tipp senior hurling panel, but they are committed to the football," says Joe Hannigan. "You are not always going to get the perfect ten. I would like to think it is heading in the right direction. And if you look at our development squads, if there are counties doing more than we are doing I would like to see it.

"To play inter-county football or hurling at top level, you just can't serve the two masters. Up to under 21 you can play dual but when you come to senior you have to make the choice. As far as we are concerned, if the player chooses hurling that's fine, and if he wants to come back to football that's fine as well. And there are examples of that.

"You can have lads saying, 'Oh if we had Joe Bloggs we'd have a right team'. Look at Colin O'Shaughnessy at corner-back. He scored a point against Cork. The opportunity presented itself because other lads aren't there and he is a super player. We get the same treatment as the hurlers do and that's good. Even though we are probably not bringing in the same income as the hurlers we are treated no differently."

In Declan Browne's 12 years playing for Tipperary he lost in eight different years in the championship to Kerry. The closest he came to beating them was in the 1998 Munster final. "We felt we could beat them," he said, reflecting on his career after retiring from club football. "In '97 we could have beaten them in Tralee and in '99 we could have beaten them in Tralee."

Could have is no longer much value, not that it was to Browne back then. Michael Power sets out the challenge facing Tipp today. "Obviously Kerry are the aristocrats of football in Ireland. Taking them on down there is a big ask but look you have to say the guys are going down there with a free spirit."

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